Lots of Nutty Caramelization
Tender Yet Firm Texture
Roasting cauliflower is a good way to caramelize its sugars and transform this mild vegetable into something sweet and nutty-tasting. But between preheating the oven and the actual roasting time, the process can take 45 minutes to 1 hour. Could a stovetop method deliver the same results in a time frame more suitable for a busy weeknight?
Following a standard sautéing method, I heated olive oil in a skillet until it started to shimmer and then added a head of cauliflower divided into florets. Cauliflower’s dense texture means it can take a while to cook through, so it was no surprise when the craggy exteriors browned before the interiors had a chance to soften. I made another batch, this time pouring a little water into the pan and covering it. The trapped steam cooked the florets through, but now they looked—and tasted—anemic.
It was time to consider straying from the fundamentals. Since a hot pan browned the florets too quickly, how about starting with a cold one? I put a skillet with the cauliflower and oil on the stove, turned on the heat, and let it cook, covered, over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. I then removed the lid and let it continue to cook for another 12 minutes, stirring now and again. It was an unusual approach, but it delivered: Now I had tender florets with some deep-brown, caramelized spots. Even better, it all happened in less than 20 minutes.
Why did it work? The gentle cold start encouraged the cauliflower to release its moisture so that the florets steamed without any additional liquid. This meant there was no dilution of flavor. That said, my florets still needed more browning. Because of their irregular, rounded shape, very few of their surfaces actually rested on the bottom of the pan. To fix that, I sliced the entire head of cauliflower into ¾-inch-thick planks and then cut around the core to divide each cross section into florets.
Finally, inspired by a classic gremolata, I found that a combination of sautéed garlic and lemon zest, with fresh chopped parsley added at the finish, perked up the cauliflower without overwhelming it. With a sprinkle of toasted fresh bread crumbs for crunch, my newfangled skillet-roasted cauliflower was complete.
Keys to Success
Lots of Nutty CaramelizationCutting the head of cauliflower into flat florets maximizes their surface area and allows them to sit flat against the bottom of the pan for thorough, even browning.
Tender Yet Firm TextureWe start the florets in a cold covered pan and let them steam for just 5 minutes in the released moisture. We then remove the lid and continue to cook the florets until they are evenly browned and tender yet still firm.
Vibrant FlavorWe season the cooked florets with garlic, grated lemon zest, and fresh chopped parsley and finish the dish with a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs.